Memory  /  Comment


What to the historian is 1619? What to Africans and their descendants is 1619?

We are living in a “memory boom” he says. From Charleston to New York, the national mall and university halls, on land and at sea, we’ve been busy. Taking down and putting up. And taking down and putting up. Again. Monuments and memorials.

Remember they say. Remember. The accomplishments, the foundings, the triumphs (abolition not slavery).

Remember they say. Remember. The founding fathers (never founding mothers).

But whose memory?

“They ask me to remember

But they want me to remember their memories

And I keep on remembering


Remember we say. Remember. The genocides. The wars. The crimes against humanity. Remember we say. “You stole us. You sold us. You owe us.

Remember we say. Remember.

What do I remember about 1619?

“I remember on the slave ship how they brutalize the very soul.”

It was summer, late summer. The heat was unbearable. The stench revolting. The agony excruciating. July–August 1619. The headlines read: “‘20 and odd Negroes’ from Africa [arrive] in Jamestown.”

20? Negroes? Africa? Their memories.

According to the historical record, “one of Virginia’s most distinctive event [was] the arrival in 1619 of ‘20 and odd Negroes’ from Africa in Jamestown.” This landing marked the arrival of the first Africans in America.

Imperfect. Impermanent. Unstable.

The historical record comes into dispute.

Not all historians agreed that the arriving 20 and odd were in fact Africans. Some argued the 20 and odd were native to America” having ancestors forced into the Spanish islands a few generations before.

Africans? Native to America? Indigenous peoples’ erasure. Pardon the interruption.

March 1619. The Virginia Census lists thirty-two Negroes, 15 men and 17 women, already in Virginia “in the service of … planters.”

Imperfect. Impermanent. Unstable.

The historical record is in dispute.


The historical record changed again in 1997 when one historian named Engel Sluiter revealed that the captives in 1619 were in fact from Africa and not the Caribbean. The 20 and odd were captured when the Sao Joao Bautista, a Portuguese slave ship inbound from Angola, was attacked by pirates piloting a Dutch man-of-war, the White Lion, and British ship, the Treasurer, off Campeche, on the Gulf of Mexico, in late July 1619. Diverted from their initial Vera Cruz destination, the pirates sold their stolen cargo in Virginia.

What to the historian is 1619?

For some, the disputed status (were they the first Africans?) and origins (were they Africans) of the 20 and odd discredits 1619 warranting national commemorations.

For others, colonizing Virginia was still a dream in 1619, well beyond the reach of English adventurers. When the English finally brought Virginia to heel almost half a century later, it was after many “false starts.” English conquest and plantations in Ireland, the lost colony of Roanoke, and the “laboratory” of the Caribbean and Bermuda collectively, though not equally, shaped Virginia’s (and by extension America’s) founding and early development. Not just 1619.